What Secrets Don’t the Fish Oil Supplement Makers Want You to Know?

“If you put Now Foods out of business, I’m coming after you–physically.” I wasn’t really scared, as back in college I had spent a summer as a bouncer at the biggest bar on the Jersey Shore. (The TV show isn’t far off in their depiction muscle-bound guidos out cruising for chicks, and failing that, a fight). But this was unexpected –I mean, I was expecting some icy stares. I was expecting some debate. I was even expecting “the man” to stop by our $4,100 booth at the nutritional supplements trade show to see just what we were doing there. But I wasn’t expecting the organizers to side with this creep who had just threatened me, and boot us out of their SupplySide East show last week at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

We went there to suggest that industry retailers ask the suppliers lined up in the other booths exactly what levels of PCBs and other chemicals are in their new cure-all Omega-3 fish oil supplements.

Our tests have found that some fish oil pills have 70 times more PCBs in them than others, which might be good to know, particularly since they’re hawking them to pregnant women and children in bottles with labels like the one I picked up at Costco on my way to the show–“L’il Critters Omega-3 Gummy Fish–Kids Love ’em, Parents Trust Them.”

I’m not sure why parents trust this supplement-cum-candy so much, because neither that bottle nor any other I’ve found will tell you what the PCB levels are–despite decades of scientific literature documenting high levels of industrial contaminants in fish and in the blood of people and cultures who eat a lot of fish. Sure, many companies now treat their fish oil to remove some of the PCBs, but because the FDA has set no limit for these contaminants in supplements, there’s almost no way for the consumer tell the difference between the cleaner product and the one that has 70 times more PCBs in it.

For some reason the supplement industry thinks there should be no additional regulation of their industry — in March they cowed Senator McCain into withdrawing support for his own legislation that would have done that. They also think that they shouldn’t even have to warn people when their product contains chemicals that could hurt your health — this in a product that’s supposed to improve it. There is one warning that the executive director of the industry trade group has been willing to provide — a warning that “companies not named in the lawsuit should not consider it an opportunity to publicize results of testing on their own supplements.” It looks like they’re hanging onto “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” even if the military abandons it.

Instead, like the Vatican, they’re claiming that they’re the victim — a victim of media attacks and in this instance a California law that doesn’t set any limits on the levels of contaminants they can expose people to, but only requires warnings to consumers when the amounts are too high. (It’s a law much like the Federal False Claims Act, signed by Lincoln in the Civil War to stem fraud by military contractors, which enlists whistleblowers to help the government catch violators.) The irony to all this is that regulation would actually help the industry, giving consumers the confidence that the products they buy are safe; but the industry is apparently so enamored of anti-regulation rhetoric that they’re willing to simultaneously endanger their customers and their long-term profitability. Thus ideology does make idiots of us all.

I’m surprised at another thing–why industries still think it’s a good idea to follow the tobacco industry’s playbook, which ultimately failed disastrously. Maybe there was a time not so long ago when you could hide your own scientists’ studies, roll out a slick PR campaign, and control the politicians and regulators with the knowledge that your opponents couldn’t afford to go toe-to-toe with you.

That approach, if it ever worked, is long gone, along with record stores, newspaper classifieds (and a lot of the newspapers themselves), and many other such pre-Internet approaches. With the gatekeepers laid off, costs greatly reduced, and information dispersal at light speed, we’re now starting to find out what industries like the nutritional supplement business used to be able to pay to keep secret. Watch this space.

The author is a plaintiff in a lawsuit under California’s Proposition 65 against two fish oil supplement retailers–CVS Pharmacy Inc. and Rite Aid Corp.–and six manufacturers–General Nutrition Corp. (GNC); NOW Health Group Inc.; Omega Protein Inc.; Pharmavite LLC (Nature Made brand); Solgar Inc.; and Twinlab Corp.

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